How Video Calls Are Affecting the Environment

Make sure your boss reads this

Key Takeaways

  • Fixed-line internet data requires huge amounts of land and water.
  • Just dropping your video calls from HD to SD can significantly reduce the carbon footprint.
  • You now have an excuse to turn off your camera for work calls.
Zoom call with coffee
Chris Montgomery / Unsplash

COVID-19 has forced us to work from home and brought unexpected environmental benefits, but the energy consumed by this increased internet use threatens to undo this green boon.

How big is this increase? Enough that the extra carbon generated would require a forest twice the size of Portugal to lock away the resulting CO2. The land and water footprints are similarly huge, and this is just for fixed-line internet. But is there anything we can do to stop this trend?

"We found that turning off video during Skype or Zoom calls is very effective," lead researcher Renee Obringer told Lifewire via email, "particularly if people are working remotely and spending a lot of time online."

Turn off Those Cameras

According to a new study led by Obringer, the amount of water and land required to power data centers needed for our internet use is staggering, as is the CO2 footprint. So big, in fact, that it’s easier to comprehend smaller, but equally shocking, numbers.

For instance, a "common video streaming service" uses 7GB per hour to stream video in 4K. This creates 441 grams (almost a pound) of CO2 per day. Just dropping the video quality from HD to standard definition would save the equivalent of "the emissions [generated from] driving a car from Baltimore to Philadelphia."

Here’s another one: "If 70 million streaming subscribers were to lower the video quality of their streaming services," writes Obringer, "there would be a monthly reduction in 3.5 million tonnes [one tonne equals 1000kgs] of CO2—the equivalent of eliminating 1.7 million tonnes of coal, or approximately 6% of the total monthly coal consumption in the US."

This is particularly annoying. There’s no reason to run video conferencing apps at 4K, because our webcams can’t run at such resolutions, and even when they can they look terrible. So, step one is for everyone to turn off video on their calls unless needed.

How To Cut The Waste

The best fixes would come from the platform vendors. Video streams could be auto-cut, the same way that audio can be auto-muted unless somebody is talking. 

Apps should be redesigned to use less data. Just cutting the quality of streaming video, says Obringer, "would lead to a reduction in 53.2 million liters per 100,000 users per month, enough water to grow over 185 tonnes of potatoes."

The effects of this extra energy consumption are felt differently around the world. Brazil, for example, gets almost 70% of its electricity from hydropower. Its water footprint is higher than other countries, but its carbon footprint is much lower. This, says Obringer, shows we shouldn’t evaluate the environmental impact based solely on carbon emissions. It’s also important to avoid harming poorer countries further by dumping data centers on them.

imgix black data servers
imgix / unsplash

"Given that data processing/storage and some part of data transmission do not necessarily occur in the country where the data is being used, this comparison also highlights the trade-offs of placing data centers in different geographic zones around the world," writes Obringer.

As an individual, it can feel pointless to make some of these changes; in the face of these huge numbers, what can one person do? But trends start small, and every little bit does help. 

You’d also have a great excuse to keep your camera off during conference calls. Who doesn’t like that?

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